Human Stress, Reactive Dogs, and Science

It’s conventional wisdom among dog trainers that a handler’s anxiety “travels down the leash” to influence the dog. To be honest, this had always sounded like some kind of woo-woo mystical nonsense to me. When I got my current extremely reactive Pug, the trainer I was working with – who I respected for being pretty hard-headed – observed that her behavior seemed to closely mirror my own stress level. But I didn’t buy it. The dog hardly knew me yet, and anyway, wasn’t it beside the point? Didn’t we just need to train her?

Then I happened to write about a research study of what’s called “social referencing”: the phenomenon where social animals look to their fellow creatures for hints about how to react to a new situation. What’s especially interesting about dogs is that they also do this with another species: our own. Using an experimental design developed for testing human infants, puppies were shown a slightly scary unfamiliar object, a fan with ribbons tied to it. They were more likely to approach the fan, and did so more quickly, when a human spoke happily and smiled than when they spoke in a neutral tone.

Another study showed the same effect in a situation even more relevant to those of us with reactive dogs: it looked at how dogs reacted to a stranger entering the room. When the owner spoke reassuringly and took a step forward, dogs were more likely to approach the stranger than when the owner took a step back and acted as though the newcomer were suspicious.

Dogs Are Good at Reading Us

So science seems to support the idea that dogs look to us to see whether to be reassured or worried. Still, it’s not like my trainer – and my dog – were watching me waving my arms at approaching dogs and freaking out. But it’s pretty clear that dogs are good at reading our emotions from more subtle clues. “That’s found in laboratory assessments as well as in living rooms across America,” says John-Tyler Binfet, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia.

In experiments, dogs have been shown to distinguish happy and angry human faces in pictures, which lack other cues such as body language. They show behavioral and hormonal signs of stress when hearing a human infant crying and not when hearing babies babbling, and they’re more likely to approach a person who’s crying than one who is humming. (That doesn’t prove they actually intend to comfort us, but they clearly can tell the difference.) And it even seems that the old saying that dogs can smell fear has some truth to it – and what’s more, they are affected by it. In an experiment, dogs could tell the difference between sweat collected when a person was feeling happiness or fear, and display more stress behaviors when the sweating human was fearful.

We do have to be careful what kind of emotions that we attribute to dogs, as by studies of the so-called “guilty look” in dogs warn. Dogs in these experiments make the “guilty look” when the owner believes they ate a forbidden treat – whether or not the dog has actually eaten it. The look is a reaction to the owner’s apparent anger, not how dogs feel about their own behavior. But while the “guilty look” doesn’t prove that dogs feel guilty, it’s another demonstration of how dogs pick up on our emotions – and why they’re so good at it: It’s pretty important to know whether your owner is about to yell at you.

“Especially with our companion dogs, we just control so much of their world,” says Erica Feuerbacher, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech, who researches  dog behavior and welfare. “Referencing us is important for them to be able to have a sense of what’s coming in their world.”

They Read Us, But How Do They React?

The science is clear that dogs are good at picking up on our negative emotions. And social referencing studies show that they do look to us to decide whether to be reassured or worried. But the “stress travels down the leash” claim is that something more subtle is happening, since you’re not overtly telling the dog whether to chill or freak out. None of the studies mentioned so far prove that.

But there is some research suggesting that handler stress is correlated with dog stress. Dr. Binfet, who studies human children and adolescents as well as dogs, is interested in what’s called “emotional contagion” or “emotional spillover,” where one individual’s emotions influence another’s. While this usually refers to how humans affect each other, he found evidence of it in a recent study of therapy dogs. “Mostly, therapy dogs working in these programs on college campuses are not adversely affected,” he says. “But there’s a subset of about one-quarter where the handler had elevated stress, and that was evident in observations of the dog’s behavior.”

Dog trainers will tell you they see evidence of this all the time. When a dog owner sees something coming that their dog usually reacts to, it’s a situation where all of their amazing abilities to read us can come into play. “As a handler you can feel yourself tense up,” says Dr. Feuerbacher. “I think that between their detection of physiological changes in us, and our overt responses like holding our breath and tensing up on the leash, all of those things contribute to the dog’s state and their reactions.”

Feuerbacher says that often when working on something like a dog-dog introduction where the dog has had problems in the past, it works better to start with a stranger handling the dog rather than the owner. It’s a sort of real-world experiment showing that when you remove the owner from the equation, the dog acts differently. It seems plausible that this is because the new handler doesn’t have the history of bad experiences that goes into making owners so stressed out.

Binfet has experienced this himself. He left one of his dogs, who has problems with other dogs, for boarding. “I pick her up and say, ‘How many fights did she get into? They say not one, she was an angel,’” he says. He initially found this hard to believe, but now it has happened more than once. “It tells me that I play a critical role in her dynamics in public,” he says. “As a scientist, I understand this from the study we ran, but I also live it, because with these strangers it’s reported again and again that she’s an angel.”

It Goes Both Ways

You might ask which came first. Whose stress is causing whose? Sure, your dog might pick up on your stress when a strange dog approaches. But you’re stressed in the first place because the dog gets stressed when a strange dog approaches. Who’s the chicken and who’s the egg, here?

Binfet suggests that instead, we just realize that it goes both ways. “When it comes to emotional contagion and emotional spillover, I encourage everyone to think of it as a bidirectional relationship,” he says.

Who started it is less important than which of us can do something about it: we’re the ones with the ability to take charge of the situation. Binfet emphasizes that he’s not blaming owners, and telling yourself to calm down is not going to be the whole solution to your dog’s reactivity. But looking to your own reactions as well as your dog’s may help.

“I am mindful of the role I play,” he says. “As people look for corrective measures to change their dog’s behavior, the starting point might just be with them. That takes some introspection: am I contributing to this, and if so how? And could I positively reshape or redirect this behavior through my own emotional regulation?”

He sums it up this way: “The question is, what are you emotionally feeding your dog?”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.